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Some ways to make NYC’s Open Data initiative more people-friendly

Unless you work in government, are a developer or have a tech-focused job, you’ve probably never heard of New York City’s Department of Information Technology and Communications (DOITT) or their cool Open Data initiative that launched earlier this month.

NYC Open Data website Open Data is essentially an evolving public database of data sets provided by New York City agencies and other City organizations which are available for public use. That may sound incredibly boring but it’s actually extremely exciting and sexy (if you think open government is sexy — which it is). Participants in NYC’s BigApps challenge can harness these data sets to create apps that improve government accessibility, transparency and accountability.

One of last year’s winners was Big Apple Ed, an online guide to New York City schools. The site makes use of data provided by The City of New York and the New York State and New York City Departments of Education.

Why You Don’t Care (Yet)

If you’re not a techie (or a parent), you are probably wondering where the sexy part of this blog post is. I promise, it’s coming. Keep in mind that data can be used in a myriad of ways. If you’re an artist, student, teacher, non-profit organization, marketer, media strategist or small business owner, Open Data is a tool for your arsenal too — you just don’t know it yet.

During her recent Strata Conference talk shared by O’Reilly Media, NYC Digital Officer Rachel Sterne discussed how open government could transform New York. Sterne also noted that all of their work opening the data “doesn’t matter if we’re not evangelizing it and making sure people are using it.”

In the spirit of evangelizing shared public resources, I’m sharing my opinion that the reason you don’t know about the awesome potential of the Open Data site is that it was designed for developers, not the average person. This makes sense — NYC government wants to partner with techie people to use their data to improve civic engagement and transparency. That’s awesome. What’s not awesome is that in this iteration of the site they didn’t empower everyday people to use the data or make the data very people-friendly, which means the only people evangelizing this resource right now are government officials, developers and data practitioners — but it doesn’t have to be this way.

Steven Romalewski, who directs the CUNY Mapping Service at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY), wrote an insightful review of Open Data’s features after it launched . In addition to comparing it to its previous iteration as NYC Data Mine, Romalewski points out that for the average user — someone at a Community Board, or a local media outlet, or a City Council member’s office — the city’s implementation of NYC Open Data seems against them. He argues that the real issue here is that the city’s open data efforts are being driven more by the desire to use data access as a way to leverage economic development, and less about true government transparency.

I have to play devil’s advocate here and say that although I agree that the city is using data primarily to leverage economic development, I don’t think the intention is growth at the expense of government transparency. I think it’s just a matter of not seeing the potential of economic growth and innovation through partnering with more than than just developers and infrastructure-focused partner companies.

How To Make You Care

But first, the most important ways that NYC Open Data can be more people-friendly overall: improving engagement by connecting with people in familiar ways that demystify the data.

1) Create Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and YouTube channels that highlight data sets, how people are using the data and share resources

It’s unrealistic to expect non-developers to visit the site and understand what it means at first glance. Social channels and the content shared through those mediums will make the data more relatable to everyday people, particularly if what is being shared includes case studies, data visualizations, employment opportunities, contests and human-interest stories.

2) Create and maintain an official blog that offer case studies, best practices, user guides, human-interest stories and solicits feedback on initiatives

The content from this blog can be seeded on the social channels and serve as an incubator for ongoing discussions on different data set use cases.

3) Implement an email subscription/SMS+text alert system that allows you to sign up based on different interests (specific data categories, overall updates, events, etc.)

Only developers will be checking the site on a regular basis. Let people subscribe to what they want and empower them to receive the information in all the ways that work for them.

4) Implement community features

NYC Open Data is a wealth of information for different communities but it’s completely lacking a community component of its own. At the very least, DOITT should add a message board for developers to share ideas and resources and a leader board highlighting the most-accessed data sets. DOITT should also foster community participation by organizing NYC Open Data Meetups and empower community members to lead discussions on different topics.

Now, let’s break down some ways that people who aren’t developers or data scientists COULD use NYC Open Data and site improvements that would make these resources more accessible.

Artists and Arts Organizations

POTENTIAL DATA USE

1. Multimedia data-driven installations: For decades artists have explored repetition and data manipulation in their work. Why not create a resource hub on NYC Open Data for artists and art institution that highlights relevant data sets, ongoing projects, and collaborates on exhibitions that utilize NYC public data?

An interesting example would be if the Brooklyn Museum (my favorite art haunt) partnered with the city and local artists to curate an exhibition focusing on 311 data. Visualizations representing the different kinds of calls, complaints and real-time information would be an interesting exploration of community and civic engagement.

2. Grants and scholarships: Philanthropical organizations (if empowered to do so) could use these data sets to determine new funding opportunities based on need, location and intersecting factors. However, they aren’t going to do this if they don’t know how to find the data, what it means, or how to manipulate it to get the information they want.

HOW TO MAKE THE DATA ACCESSIBLE

1. NYC Open Data should create a hub on the site focused on providing resources for artists and arts organizations. This hub could highlight how artists and organizations are using the data, providing recommendations on how it could be used and offer challenges for artists to use public data to enhance city-wide initiatives.

2. NYC Open Data should create an arts-specific Facebook page (“NYC Open Data for Artists”) that spotlights ongoing projects, opportunities and relevant data sets.

Non-Profits and Grassroots Organizations

POTENTIAL DATA USE

1. Grant writing/applications: It would be very beneficial for non-profits to be able to see data from funding opportunities. They could use the data to determine which grants to focus on, the implications of city budget allotments (how money is being spent) and more.

2. Focused campaigns: Grassroots movements like Occupy could use data set information to empower their decisions and to share information and directives with affiliated groups across the nation.

HOW TO MAKE THE DATA ACCESSIBLE

1. NYC Open Data should create a hub on the site for non-profits and civic engagement (activism). This hub could highlight how non-profits are using the data, providing recommendations on how it could be used and offer opportunities for non-profits to use public data to enhance city-wide initiatives.

This sounds like a repeat of my first suggestion for artists and essentially it is — only tailored to non-profits. And just as I stated for artist resources, NYC Open Data should create a non-profit specific Facebook page (“NYC Open Data for Non-Profits”) that spotlights ongoing projects, opportunities and relevant data sets.

2. Specific to Occupy, it would be very beneficial for volunteers to be trained on how to read data to inform their decisions. Leaders could use NYC Open Data as a teaching tool by pulling data to reveal information about arrests, previous protest-related damage and lawsuits, etc.

The examples I listed above are only the tip of the iceberg. Public access to city data and empowering organizations, journalists and everyday people to use the data could kick off a new renaissance of innovation for NYC that could be modeled in other cities. We won’t know until we give people the tools to manifest their dreams.

Brass Tacks: What It Will Take To Make This Happen

NYC Open Data would be much more accessible (make more sense to regular people) and utilized if it took the 21+ data set categories they have already defined (Environmental, Women’s Issues, Media, etc.) on the site and turned them into individual hubs with relevant and consistently updated resources, making sure to include social platforms for evangelizing and community-building.

In order to achieve this goal, the city would need to hire a Supervising Producer to oversee the hiring and management of digital producers with a journalism and activism background for each topic-focused hub. Each digital producer for each hub within the site would work with different city agencies and with data experts and data viz talents to make their hub an accessible resource.

This step would be aligned with NYC’s Digital Roadmap goals and transform NYC Open Data from a helpful but obscure developer resource into a platform for true civic engagement and community around many different issues.